Interview with Jennifer Keesmaat
Insight Jennifer Keesmaat shares her insights on the importance of smart infrastructure and the role public-private partnerships play in infrastructure development.
Jennifer Keesmaat is former Chief Planner at the City of Toronto, and a candidate in the 2018 Toronto mayoral election. She spoke with Mediaplanet about transit and infrastructure in the city.
Mediaplanet: How important is infrastructure to facilitating Toronto’s prosperity and growth?
Jennifer Keesmaat: Infrastructure is the foundation of modern societies. It is central to allowing cities to grow and accommodate new people in a livable way. This means infrastructure in the broadest sense — everything from transit to sewage pipes, to roads and sidewalks, to schools and community amenities. If you take any of those elements away, we compromise our quality of life and our access to clean air and water.
The challenge is that as our cities grow at a significant rate, we have to keep up in delivering that infrastructure. We can’t just play catch up. We have to get out ahead of the growth and provide the infrastructure we need. That’s often been a challenge, mostly due to our funding arrangements.
Mediaplanet: What specific proposals do you have to improve transit in Toronto?
Jennifer Keesmaat: We need to add excellent transit in every corner of the city, and get away from a patchwork approach. People often ask me whether I’m for subways or LRT. The answer is both – we need different kinds of infrastructure in different parts of the city, and we need to continuously advance a whole variety of different components to fill the gap in our existing transit network.
That means expanding our LRT network, our bus rapid transit network, and building out our subway network – the key priority being the relief line extension to the north and west. The underpinning of this is a recognition that one of the biggest constraints to growth is how people are going to move in this city going forward. The physics of everyone moving in a car just doesn’t work, and dense urban places need higher ordered transit. It’s essential to a sustainable, livable, and equitable city where everyone can access jobs and employment.
Mediaplanet: What role can the public-private partnership (P3) model play in infrastructure development?
Jennifer Keesmaat: Because there’s so much that we need to do when it comes to infrastructure, we need as many players as possible that have an expertise in building transit infrastructure. The same is the case for housing: we have a tremendous amount of expertise in the city across sectors, and we need to bring all of that to the table to facilitate the massive campaign of construction that needs to take place.
Whatever model we embrace, the public interest has to come first. If you look at the Waterfront in Toronto, we’ve built and planned ambitious projects, but we need the transit infrastructure. We’re significantly behind, and there’s a large amount we need to build. We need to work collaboratively across sectors, while always protecting the public interest.
Mediaplanet: One key issue is a lack of affordable rental housing. You founded a P3, the Creative Housing Society, to address that. How do we fix this lack of affordable rental housing in Toronto?
Jennifer Keesmaat: Historically, our competitive advantage has been that young people, entrepreneurs, and immigrants from elsewhere can come to this city and quickly get a foothold. Today, that is highly compromised by a lack of access to affordable rental housing. I’ve put forward a plan to build, over 10 years, 100,000 units of affordable rental housing at 80 percent of the average market rent. We can do this by unlocking city-owned land such as one-storey subway stations and Green P parking lots. We need to unlock that land to deliver on the public interest, ensuring that there’s housing for everyone in the city — young people in particular.